Monday, June 2, 2014

Why Spirituality Offends Me

Don't know who to credit this to,
but here's an explanation of the phenomena.
I find notions of spirituality to be offensive.  That statement in and of itself offends a lot of people.  I recognize that and understand that such a statement cuts right to the core many people's most deeply held beliefs and world views.  I understand and appreciate the way people feel when confronted with such a statement, however I feel no need to apologize for the offense felt.  This piece is a critique of a set of beliefs, ideas, and world views, not an attack on those who hold these ideas.  Most people I know and love hold some or all of these beliefs; and most people I know are good, kind, and decent.  That one holds on to any vaguely spiritual belief in no way diminishes my respect for them on a personal or intellectual level, but in my view it does expose an intellectual blind spot.

Before we dive into why spirituality offends me let's first define what I mean by use of the term.  I'll derive my definition from common use of the term 'spiritual.'  As per dating website cliche's many people describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious.'  In other words they don't necessarily believe in or follow an organized religion but believe that there exists some sort of supernatural entity, 'force,' or 'energy' that may or may not actively or passively take an interest in human affairs.  Some people say they actually believe in some sort  of individual god or gods, others in more vague forces that imbue the universe with meaning.  As I'm sure the reader may note at this point the definition is quite vague and broad.  The vagueness and breadth of this definition relates directly with the first reason why spirituality offends me.

Intellectually the vagueness of the definition of spirituality renders it almost meaningless.  It's very vagueness allows any believer the room to define spirituality in any way that suits their particular worldview, again rendering the term meaningless.

At it's simplest spirituality can be defined as belief in the supernatural.  If we go by this more specific definition the argument is over before it even starts.  The very notion of something being supernatural means it is outside of nature, therefore unobservable in any sense.  It can neither be proved nor disproved.  You are still welcome to that belief, but there is no compelling reason for me to rethink my non-belief in anything supernatural.  If you want me to change that idea the burden is upon you to provide that evidence.  If there is evidence for what you claim  it then exists in reality, it is no longer supernatural, it is now natural.

When one defines their spirituality as a belief in some sort of universal energy or force that pervades, perhaps even animates, all things.  The problem here is that the words energy and force are being completely misused and misunderstood.  Energy simply means the "ability of a physical system to do work."  Force is "the push or pull upon an object resulting form the object's interaction with another object." The next time someone tells you that they believe in some sort of 'life energy' that pervades all living things replace the word 'energy' with its definition and see if it still makes sense.  If it doesn't make sense with the actual definition, it doesn't make sense with the word 'energy' either.  The same thing has in recent years happened to the word 'quantum,' largely due to Deepak Chopra.  Yet again, the definition of what one means by spirituality becomes meaningless.  This is the bastardization of fundamental physical concepts that go further than any supernatural explanation at describing reality.  It flies in the face of centuries of hard earned knowledge on the part of countless individuals and groups, some of whom risked their lives, to better and more objectively describe our universe.  We are ascribing agency to a universe which is perfectly well explained without need of it.  That is intellectually offensive.

Emerging from the intellectual offenses noted above leads to the next; the notion that our sense of self, our minds, are supernatural entities which inhabit our body as a vessel for a short period of time.  As we delve deeper into the human mind via the ever hardening sciences of neurobiology and psychology a consensus is emerging that our minds, our Cartesian experience, our very sense of self, is rooted in physical, chemical, and biological processes which taken in aggregate to produce subjective experience.  Our minds are an emergent property of the physical substrate of our brains, bodies, and external stimuli.  On a very deep level, our sense of self emerges from within, not without.  Note how often the personalities of those who have experienced traumatic brain injury, stroke, or Alzheimer's disease will reportedly change their personalities completely in fundamental ways.  If we were inhabited by some sort of entity from without brain injuries would hardly change our personality.  This all gets to the root of what offends the most about spirituality.  Spirituality denies our humanity.

At its core spirituality denies reality, and our experience of reality as it is described by empirical knowledge. The wonderful thing about science as a tool is that it takes into account our limited mental and physical abilities to perceive the world around us.  Science as a tool serves as a check on our subjective experience, our prejudices, and all of our other cognitive shortcomings.  It is knowledge of radio waves and their properties that has allowed us to detect the cosmic background radiation, the 'echo' of the big bang. Knowledge of the interactions between physical objects, obtained through calculus, allowed us to free ourselves of Earth's gravitational well and land people on Luna, send robots to Mars, and send a physical object beyond the boundaries of our solar system into interstellar space.  Knowledge of the nature of light allows you to read this very blog post, possibly within seconds of its posting, on the other side of the planet. Not to mention the ancient wonders of the world, all of art and aesthetic appreciation, countless ethical and moral systems (many of which have nothing to say of the supernatural), the countless lives saved by modern medicine and public health, the doubling of the human lifespan, the knowledge of how we influence and degrade our environment, and the knowledge of what we need to do to reverse that degradation.  None of this came from any sort of supernatural entity.  That all came from a three pound hunk of meat and its attendant biological processes located in each of our skulls.  To attribute human creativity, morality, intellect, compassion, knowledge, and experience to anything other than ourselves is to deny our very existence.

For all of these reasons, spirituality offends me.

1 comment:

  1. There are rational forms of spiritual philosophy which just look at the universe and other people in a way that gives us a sense of a deeper connection to other people and things without all the hocus pocus and vague nonsense of new-agey "spirituality". But yes, most people who say they are spiritual probably mean something pretty vague.